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Naval Special Warfare Equips for Emerging Threats

In his prepared April 28, 2021 posture statement before the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, Rear Adm. H.W. Howard III, commander, Naval Special Warfare Command, asserted: “Today, our nation faces unprecedented challenges and increasing geopolitical risk; the rise of peer adversary powers, economic and social disruptions, and lowering technological barriers to new informational, biological, chemical, and improvised nuclear threats – which form together a crucible of destabilizing threats and opportunities.”

He added, “Naval Special Warfare [NSW], as the nation’s premier naval commando force, is undergoing deliberate and urgent transformation to meet new threats and create opportunities to maintain competitive advantage.”

 

TRANSFORMING FOR GREAT POWER COMPETITION

In addition to a range of transformational activities involving personnel, organizational structure, and command and control capabilities, Howard acknowledged that some transformative investments had been “refocused on ensuring global access in the maritime domain with a range of mobility, signature, and scalable kinetic and non-kinetic effects capabilities.

“Each capability investment is distinctive and designed to increase the lethality or survivability of the joint force across the competition continuum and into crisis and conflict,” he said. “True to special operations core tenets, we aim to serve as an ‘inside force’ creating dilemmas for the adversary and advantage inside where the enemy perceives superiority across all domains. With our rapid, force-wide transformation, we are delivering on the creative ways we can asymmetrically solve hard problems and do the things we must do now ahead of crisis.”

Elaborating on those themes during subsequent testimony, he offered, “We will never underestimate the enduring threat of terrorism to the homeland. When we look at the threats, the technological barrier to entry to those threats is dropping. Our concern is in biothreats, synthetic bio, improvised nuclear weapons. We can never underestimate those threats to the nation.”


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Turning toward potential “peer threats” to the country, he said, “On China, specifically, and Russia, we are looking at how to modernize as rapidly as we can our comparative advantage in the maritime domain, both on and under the sea. And it is the access for intelligence operations, it is the access for dilemmas that undermine confidence and provide escalation offramps. That is the main thing that Naval Special Warfare is focused on. My sense is we will always contribute to counterterrorism. I think the nation will need our capabilities there. But the distinctive capabilities we have in the maritime domain for peer threats, that is our main effort.”

 

MARITIME PORTFOLIO

The materiel basis for those distinctive maritime domain capabilities was highlighted a couple of weeks later, during the virtual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC), when USSOCOM Program Executive Officer for Maritime Capt. Randy Slaff offered a broad overview of his equipment and platform portfolios.

Slaff asserted that a review of the “National Defense Strategy” (NDS) served to highlight the importance of maritime special operations capabilities. “We think that the capability we bring dovetails perfectly into the guidance outlined in [NDS],” he said. “We’ve received great support for the maritime portfolio in recent years, and we continue to drive the NDS principles into tangible capabilities, as we strive to rapidly provide an enhanced capability and GPC [great power competition] environment through platforms designed to provide assured access in denied environments.”

 

Naval special operations forces from the Greek Underwater Demolition Team (DYK), Cypriot Underwater Demolition Team (UDT), and U.S. Navy Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen (SWCC) conduct visit board search and seizure (VBSS) evolutions aboard a Combatant Craft Assault (CCA) in Souda Bay, Greece, during a trilateral exercise. (USSOCOM PHOTO BY SGT. MONIQUE O’NEILL)

Naval special operations forces from the Greek Underwater Demolition Team (DYK), Cypriot Underwater Demolition Team (UDT), and U.S. Navy Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen (SWCC) conduct visit board search and seizure (VBSS) evolutions aboard a Combatant Craft Assault (CCA) in Souda Bay, Greece, during a trilateral exercise. (USSOCOM PHOTO BY SGT. MONIQUE O’NEILL)

 

Referencing his arrival at USSOCOM in August of 2020, he told the virtual audience that he continued to be amazed by the operatorfocused and agile acquisition mindset exhibited by the USSOCOM team, which includes external stakeholders and industry partners.

“This week is a testament to the industry-government partnership in support of our special operations forces [SOF],” he said. “The contributions you make to our SOF warfighters every single day is critical to our national security, and that’s especially true in the Naval Special Warfare community and PEO Maritime as we shift our focus from counter violent extremism to great power competition.

“Maritime is a great place to be during the pivot to GPC,” Slaff added. “And the maritime portfolio is vital to USSOCOM’s near- and far-term strategic vision, due to the unique capabilities that we can and will be able to provide.”

He observed that the maritime portfolio is somewhat unique in that the majority of systems are specifically designed and procured for special operations.

“We don’t have the luxury of piggybacking off of service acquisition programs and then leveraging SOF modifications to meet requirements,” he said. “So the majority of the maritime portfolio are SOF built, specifically to meet NSW needs.”

The unique capabilities in the USSOCOM maritime portfolio are divided between five program managers: Surface Systems; Undersea Systems; Combat Diving; Unmanned Undersea Vehicles/SEAL Delivery Vehicles; and Dry Deck Shelters.

 

SURFACE SYSTEMS

Surface Systems encompass programs like Combatant Craft Heavy (CCH), Combatant Craft Medium (CCM), Combatant Craft Assault (CCA), Special Operations Craft-Riverine (SOC-R), Combatant Craft Forward Looking Infrared (CCFLIR), and Maritime Precision Engagement (MPE).

“What you’ll see in the surface platforms is that they are at a different level of maturity compared to the undersea portfolio,” Slaff began. “These are platforms that are fielded. They’re out there. They’re in use. And they are great craft.”

 

Three Combatant Craft Heavy (CCH) have been built, with two already transferred to USSOCOM and another expected to be soon. (VIGOR WORKS PHOTO)

Three Combatant Craft Heavy (CCH) have been built, with two already transferred to USSOCOM and another expected to be soon. (VIGOR WORKS PHOTO)

 

He offered the example of the CCH “Sealion,” which provides longrange insertion and extraction capabilities. Two technology demonstrator platforms were transferred from the Navy to USSOCOM, with a third platform awarded to Vigor Works, LLC.

“We’ve got all three built,” Slaff said. “The last one has yet to be delivered to the operator, as she undergoes some backfit on engineering. But transfer is imminent and will happen in the next couple of months, so all three will be downrange and ready to go for the operator.”

The CCM MK 1 is a multi-role surface combatant craft with the primary mission of inserting and extracting special operations forces in medium threat environments. Also manufactured by Vigor Works, 30 of 30 craft acquired have now been fielded. One additional craft was added post-contract award, with that vessel slated for delivery next year.

 

Sailors deployed with the expeditionary mine countermeasures (ExMCM) capability of Task Force 75 and Special Warfare Combatant Crewmen assigned to Special Boat Team 12 recover a MK 18 Mod 2 unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) onto a Combatant Craft Medium (CCM) in Pago Bay, Guam. (U.S. NAVY PHOTO BY MASS COMMUNICATIONS SPECIALIST 1ST CLASS ADAM BROCK)

Sailors deployed with the expeditionary mine countermeasures (ExMCM) capability of Task Force 75 and Special Warfare Combatant Crewmen assigned to Special Boat Team 12 recover a MK 18 Mod 2 unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) onto a Combatant Craft Medium (CCM) in Pago Bay, Guam. (U.S. NAVY PHOTO BY MASS COMMUNICATIONS SPECIALIST 1ST CLASS ADAM BROCK)

 

CCA provides the capabilities for medium-range maritime assault, interdiction, insertion, and extraction. The platform is manufactured by U.S. Marine Inc., with 32 CCAs now fielded and a hot production line replacing existing craft with new ones off the assembly line.

The Surface Systems portfolio also includes the CCFLIR, a multi-sensor electro-optic system that enhances SOF effectiveness through improved abilities for detection, recognition, identification, ranging, tracking, and highlighting objects of interest. Manufactured by FLIR Systems Inc., the system is integrated and deployed on both CCH and CCM and is in the design and test stage for integration on CCA. As of the SOFIC update, 47 out of a planned 58 CCFLIRs had been delivered.

SOC-R is currently in sustainment with no related platform acquisition activities at this time. The MPE program addresses maritime SOF interest in a standoff, loitering, man-in-the-loop weapons system that can be deployed on combatant craft and capable of targeting individuals, groups, vehicles, and small oceangoing craft. The program consists of combatant craft alterations in cooperation with munition development now underway within the USSOCOM Program Executive Office for SOF Warrior.

 

UNDERSEA SYSTEMS

The Undersea Systems office has responsibility for USSOCOM’s Dry Combat Submersibles (DCS).

“Dry combat submersibles improve our competitive advantage by providing a greater range and payload capacity for the operator,” Slaff said. “By remaining dry, there is less impact to the divers in transit, enabling them to maximize their operational time on station.”

 

Naval Special Warfare (NSW) operators onboard a SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) MK 11 conduct routine navigation training. While the MK 11 appears similar to the MK 8 SDV, the MK 11 is larger and is equipped with updated computer and communications systems. (U.S. NAVY PHOTO BY CHIEF MASS COMMUNICATIONS SPECIALIST CHRISTOPHER PEREZ)

Naval Special Warfare (NSW) operators onboard a SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) MK 11 conduct routine navigation training. While the MK 11 appears similar to the MK 8 SDV, the MK 11 is larger and is equipped with updated computer and communications systems. (U.S. NAVY PHOTO BY CHIEF MASS COMMUNICATIONS SPECIALIST CHRISTOPHER PEREZ)

 

He said that the current DCS “Block I” consists of three surface-launched boats: DCS 1, which is finishing up developmental testing at Little Creek, Virginia, and should enter operational testing in the Tampa, Florida, area later this summer; DCS 2, now undergoing factory acceptance testing at the Lockheed Martin facility in West Palm Beach, Florida; and DCS 3, which is in production and being outfitted with mechanical and hydraulic systems at MSubs Ltd. in the United Kingdom.

“As you can see, all three are progressively moving closer to being fielded and getting into operators’ hands,” he said. “Once online, this capability will complement the [MK 8 and MK 11 series] wet submersible fleet by increasing the mission set available to NSW while protecting the operators in a dry environment.”

Pointing to the next generation, he described “DCS Next” as “a variant that will provide incremental capability upgrades based on moving toward a submarine interoperable asset.

Acknowledging that USSOCOM is “pretty early in the process” regarding DCS Next, he identified a range of ongoing activities, including market research, upcoming industry days, risk-reduction studies, and modeling and simulation.

This work will be followed by host sub interface studies, submersible tactical data assessments, cost modeling, and optimal vehicle size studies.

 

COMBAT DIVING

“Maritime mobility involves the capability to deliver combat forces at sea,” Slaff said. “And this commodity begins with the individual combat diver. That operator is our number one asset, and [the] SOF Combat Diving program supports the individual diver as well as its interface with all PEO Maritime platforms.”

He highlighted a number of accomplishments in the Combat Diving arena, which he described as “undergoing a massive modernization effort” with the establishment of formal requirements definitions in four key areas: maritime environmental protection, communication, navigation, and propulsion.

Maritime environmental protection activities, for example, include enhanced thermal regulation with active and passive heating and cooling, a full-face mask for use with a closed-circuit rebreather and incorporating voice communications, an excursion-capable oxygen underwater breathing apparatus, and protection from expanded threats.

 

West Coast-based Naval Special Warfare (NSW) operators participate in combat swimmer training. PEO Combat Diving is undertaking modernization efforts across a number of areas. 9U.S. NAVY PHOTO BY MASS COMMUNICATIONS SPECIALIST 1ST CLASS MATTHEW C. DUNCKER)

West Coast-based Naval Special Warfare (NSW) operators participate in combat swimmer training. PEO Combat Diving is undertaking modernization efforts across a number of areas. 9U.S. NAVY PHOTO BY MASS COMMUNICATIONS SPECIALIST 1ST CLASS MATTHEW C. DUNCKER)

 

Another focus area, underwater communication, is conducting efforts involving both diver-to-diver and diver-to-platform communications, incorporation of the Android Tactical Applications Kit (ATAK), and both acoustical and optical communication options for text and data, voice (breathing air as well as helium/oxygen), and full motion video.

Slaff said that Combat Diving is pursuing a developmental strategy directed toward the elevation of commercial technologies with modifications to make them SOF unique, adding that the efforts are based on three- to five-year life cycles that continually rebuild readiness with greater performance and affordability.

 

UNMANNED UNDERSEA VEHICLES/SEAL DELIVERY VEHICLES

Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (UUV)/SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) activities place a spotlight on the new MK 11 SDV. Manufactured by Teledyne Brown Engineering, the MK 11 is the next-generation free-flooding “wet” combat manned submersible to transport special operations forces personnel and equipment for a variety of missions. It is designed to replace the legacy MK 8 series platforms that have been in service since the mid-1990s.

The MK 11 is 12 inches longer and 6 inches taller and wider than its predecessor, featuring enhancements like: Intel Core i7 processors; secure SSD; GB Ethernet backbone; improved software and user interface; higher accuracy navigation; and increased cargo and payload capacity.

 

Naval Special Warfare (NSW) operators onboard SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) Mark 11 conduct routine navigation training. NSW organizes, mans, trains, equips, deploys, sustains, and provides command and control of NSW forces to conduct full spectrum undersea special operations and activities worldwide in support of Geographic Combatant Commanders and national interests. (U.S. NAVY PHOTO BY CHIEF MASS COMMUNICATIONS SPECIALIST CHRISTOPHER PEREZ) (This photo has been altered for security purposes.)

 

“The key takeaway [for the MK 11] is that we’re delivering a more capable platform to the fleet that is upgraded to capitalize on 20 years of improvements in computers and communications as well as miniaturization, providing more space within the platform for operators and equipment, and much greater capacity for situational awareness and delivery of products to the operators,“ Slaff said.

The first two new boats were delivered in May and June 2018, with boats 3, 4, and 5 delivered March-June 2020. Current plans call for delivery of boats 6–10 during the period FY 22 through FY 23.

One significant milestone surrounding the SDV programs was the completion of interoperability testing with a host submarine, which occurred in July of 2021 and was characterized by Slaff as “a big victory for this program.”


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The MK 18 UUV is something of an exception to the earlier portfolio categorization, since it is a U.S. Navy-provided platform that can be equipped with purpose-built modular plug-and-play sensors and payloads to meet SOF-peculiar requirements.

“The government has accepted four systems and each system has three vehicles,” Slaff explained. “So we’ve got 12 vehicles already and plan to deliver systems one through five to the fleet by the end of this fiscal year [Sept. 30, 2021].”

 

DRY DECK SHELTERS

Dry Deck Shelters are a certified diving system that attaches to both converted Ohio-class SSGNs as well as Virginia-class SSN submarines. The six shelters in the Navy inventory achieved full operational capability in FY 91, with the first of those shelters now undergoing a DDS Modernization Project to increase payload volume (extending the shelter by 50 inches), increase capacity for launch and recovery, allow for remote operations, reduce risk to the host submarine, and reduce operator fatigue.

 

The Virginia-class fast attack submarine USS North Dakota (SSN 784) returns home to Submarine Base New London, Jan. 31, 2019, from its maiden deployment, with a Dry Deck Shelter (DDS) mounted to the deck. Along with a DDS Modernization program to enlarge and improve the six DDS in service, NSW is working to ensure the availability of Virginia-class SSNs to carry the DDS as Ohio-class SSGNs are decommissioned. (U.S. NAVY PHOTO BY NAREWSKI)

The Virginia-class fast attack submarine USS North Dakota (SSN 784) returns home to Submarine Base New London, Jan. 31, 2019, from its maiden deployment, with a Dry Deck Shelter (DDS) mounted to the deck. Along with a DDS Modernization program to enlarge and improve the six DDS in service, NSW is working to ensure the availability of Virginia-class SSNs to carry the DDS as Ohio-class SSGNs are decommissioned. (U.S. NAVY PHOTO BY NAREWSKI)

 

Other identified efforts included working with the Navy to ensure the availability of more Virginia-class vessels to serve as host submarines as the SSGNs are “sunsetted” near the end of this decade.


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Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...

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